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In general, as we walk along the twists and turns of life's promenade, we focus straight ahead, diverting our attention now and then to the right or to the left. However, when taking a walk after a heavy rain, most of us walk with downcast eyes. Not because rain is particularly gloomy, but rather in order to avoid puddles and mud. A downward glance is also in order when searching for a lost item. Our gaze is drawn to the skies above when we've sighted a flock of birds flying in formation, or when trying to determine if the storm will hold off until we get home, or when following the gaze of a delighted child who has spotted a kite dancing in the wind.
You can look up and you can look down. You can look sideways, front and back. It's a free world, so depending on what you need to see, you can look most anywhere you want.
But, is there a preferred place to look? Judaism, of course, has something to say about where and where not to look.
Peering into the Torah gives us our first insight:
When the non-Jewish prophet Bilam was attempting to curse the Jewish people as they dwelled peacefully in the Sinai desert, the words that tumbled out of his mouth were actually words of blessing. He said, "Ma Tovu-How good are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places Israel." We say these words each day in our morning prayers and sing them to express Jewish unity and brotherhood at camps or retreats.
Classical Jewish teachings explain that the cause of Bilam's blessing and awe of the Jewish people was that as they were encamped, each tent was pitched or situated in a way that allowed for the total privacy of every family. In addition, every family respected everyone else's privacy; no one attempted to pry into his neighbor's business which included not being concerned with what the neighbor possessed.
Surely the sentiments of "Ma Tovu" are positive steps toward Jewish unity: privacy, non-interference, no attempt to keep up with the Schwartzes.
Jewish mysticism takes the idea of where to look and where not to look one step further: In spiritual matters one should look up, in material matters one should look down, Chasidut suggests.
When contemplating one's experiences and relationships with friends, family, colleagues, strangers on the street, and certainly G-d, one should "look up" to a mentor or role model who has healthy, strong and dynamic interactions.
Conversely, when considering one's material situation, financial, physical or otherwise, one should "look down" at (but not upon) those who are not as fortunate, and surely this will bring one to an understanding of just how blessed he or she is. To this outlook one might object, "Someone else's life is not my reality; his sack of woes is not mine." But if, rather than looking at whoever has a bigger house, a better job or fewer aches and pains, we consider that there are people without housing altogether, people whose employers have down-sized them out of a job, when we acknowledge that thank G-d, we're alive to complain about the aches and pains, we will realize how lucky we truly are.
In the Days of Moshiach we are promised that there will be no jealousy or strife. Each of us will have everything we need and will, maybe more importantly, recognize that we have everything we need. Perhaps even now, in these last moments before the Redemption, we should learn to be happy with our lot, and certainly this will prepare us for and hasten the long-awaited revelation of Moshiach.
The Torah is eternal, as are all the lessons we derive from it. Even if an event took place only once in history, or the Torah speaks about something that no longer exists in the physical sense, it is still relevant to us at the present time. In this week's portion, Naso, we read about the census of the tribe of Levi that was conducted in the desert by the sons of Gershon and Merari. This tally was made only once, in the second year after the Exodus. In the spiritual sense, however, the concept behind reckoning the number of Levites has eternal significance for every Jew, in all times and places.
Following the sin of the 12 spies, G-d decreed that the Jewish people would have to wait 40 years before entering Israel. The spies' sin was that they did not want to enter Israel; their punishment was not being allowed to do so. In truth, the Jewish people could have waited out their punishment anywhere outside the borders of Israel. But as it turned out, the 40 years were spent wandering through the desert.
There is great significance in the Jewish people's having wandered through a desert. A desert is a place uninhabited by people. It is desolate and uncultivated. The presence of the Jewish people transformed the empty wilderness into "home" for a great multitude. Its stark desolation was also relieved by the grass and trees that sprouted wherever they went, thanks to the well that accompanied them in the merit of Miriam. The desert, a place incompatible with human life, was transformed in to a place that could support it.
Though this happened thousands of years ago, it has practical significance for us today. For every Jew is obligated to transform his desert-like surroundings into "cultivated land."
it sometimes happens that a Jew may look around and discover that he is indeed in a "desert." He may feel himself alone in the world, overwhelmed by a sense of being different. Nonetheless, we are not permitted to simply leave, to run away and look for a better place to live. Like our forefathers, we must turn our surroundings into habitable land. This is accomplished by studying and sharing Torah, and bringing everyone we meet under its influence.
Another "desert" may be a personal, spiritual one. For, if we have not properly sown our environment with good deeds, our inner garden is uncultivated. Yet, we always have the power to change! As we read in this week's Torah portion, it was only upon attainment of the age of 30 that a Levite became eligible to carry the Sanctuary's components. Similarly, if any Jew sincerely resolves to serve G-d properly, regardless of age or past conduct, he will be given the strength from Above to purify himself and amend his ways.
In this manner, both one's personal "desert" and the world at large will be transformed into a flourishing "cultivated land."
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, Volume 13
Children of Chernobyl
by Jay Litvin
If Tevye, the milkman from Fiddler on the Roof, was delivering milk today, he would be shocked to find out that it could be the cause of stomach, colon and liver cancer in young children, as well as other non-cancerous diseases and horrible congenital birth defects. According to doctors in Belarus and Ukraine, this is the reality 12 years after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion.
As Medical Liaison of Chabad's Children of Chernobyl, I spent nearly two months traveling between Minsk, Belarus and Kiev, Ukraine visiting hospitals, orphanages and private aid organizations, and interviewing health care professionals, parents and children. Given predictions by researchers that the latency period for radiation-induced diseases would end around 12 years after the April 26, 1986 meltdown, I decided to discover for myself the true extent of the danger, especially to the Jewish population.
Jews in the contaminated regions of Ukraine and Belarus share the same diseases and lack of medicines and medical care as their neighbors. On my journey, I found that approximately 10% of the children lying in hospitals or abandoned in orphan ages with birth defects or cancer from Chernobyl's radiation are Jewish.
In January, I visited the Ovruch Regional Hospital, 43 miles from Chernobyl, which services 71,000 people. The Chief Doctor told me that thyroid cancer rates among this population is up 200 percent and breast cancer rates have risen nearly 200 times. The number of healthy children in the area has decreased from 43% in 1985 to less than nine percent today. I arrived when temperatures were 30 degrees below zero, Centigrade. The hospital had so little heat that patients, including infants, lay bundled in winter wraps to keep warm. Parents stayed by their children's beds for lack of medical staff. They provided not only food and blankets, but all medicines and hospital supplies. The director showed me the hospital's bare medicine cabinet. The operating table was in such disrepair that four people were needed to hold it steady during surgery.
In Minsk and Gomel, Belarus, I visited orphanages with room upon room of children with congenital birth defects, including Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, micro-encephalitis, and hydrocephalus. I saw deformities that defy description: huge, swollen feet and abdomens; grotesquely twisted limbs; fingers growing from shoulder sockets; feet and hands with six, seven, even eight digits. In each orphanage, the administrator would point out the Jewish children to me - a boy with hydrocephalus, a girl with contorted legs.
In Belarus and Ukraine parents are encouraged to abandon such children at birth. Jewish parents are no exception. Lack of money and the absence of social or medical services make it virtually impossible to raise them at home. Most institutions are filthy, neglected, understaffed and under-equipped. In the better ones, children were fed and washed. In the worst, not even that. There is no medical care, no surgical intervention, no therapy.
My interviews with administrators and staff revealed that the number of disabled children has risen dramatically since the Chernobyl disaster, all born to parents in their early 20s, who were eight or ten at the time. "Before Chernobyl, 50% of the children here had disabilities, and 50% were normal," Dr. Nina Belskaya, the 18-year veteran administrator of one of the most notorious orphanages told me. "Now, 100% of the children in this building have birth defects, and we built another, larger building to house the rest. Most frightening," she continued, "is the type of deformities. I have never seen such horrifying deformities in my entire professional career."
At the Thyroid Cancer Center in Minsk, Professor E. Demedchik told me that thyroid cancer is increasing in teenagers who were infants at the time of the explosion, while younger children are developing stomach, colon and liver cancer from ingesting contaminated food and milk. Though the government says that the food is monitored, it is not. People buy the majority of their food from stalls located either in large "farmers' markets" or from a line of makeshift tables found at nearly every Metro station or rural bus stop. Even in large cities, people sell food harvested from rural gardens located in the most contaminated areas. Radiation from contaminated food, he warned, weakens the immune system and results in many non-cancerous diseases as well. Demedchik predicted that 85% of children in the contaminated regions who were infants in April 1986 will develop cancer.
In Gomel, I attended a meeting of Children in Trouble, a non-profit parent support organization established in 1990 by Valentina Pokhomova, the mother of one of the first local children to develop thyroid cancer. Today, 613 children, all with cancer, are registered with the group; 88 have died. Valentina arranged for me to meet with 20 Jewish parents, and their children. They shared their pain and fear. I heard about children who waited months for examinations and whose cancers were discovered only after spreading to surrounding lymph glands and tissue. Parents described how their children had to undergo several operations because of poor surgical intervention. Now they can neither find nor afford medicines or follow-up care.
After the meeting, a 14-year-old boy suffering from thyroid cancer approached me. "Thank you," he said. "For what?" I asked, feeling I had done nothing. He smiled and hugged me. "Thank you for coming all the way from Israel. Thank you for caring. I don't feel so scared or lonely now."
Jay Litvin is the Medical Liaison for the Israel-based Chabad Children of Chernobyl, a program that brings Jewish children to Israel for extended medical treatment and respite, and provides aid to the affected areas of Belarus and Ukraine.
For more information on the activities of Chabad Children of Chernobyl write to Jay Litvin at firstname.lastname@example.org
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16 Adar, 5712 
.... I have duly received your letter of the 8th of Shevat, but this is the first opportunity to answer it. Should there be any good news in the meantime, you will no doubt let me know.
You seem to be disturbed because you feel that you have not attained the proper level in Torah and mitzvot and cannot see the tachlis [purpose] etc., which makes you downhearted.
Leaving the details of your complaints aside, I wish to make several observations:
- A feeling of dissatisfaction with oneself is a good sign, for it indicates vitality and an urge to rise and improve oneself, which is accomplished in a two-way method: withdrawal from the present state, and turning to a higher level (see sicha [talk] of my father-in-law of sainted memory, Pesach 5694).
- If the urge to improve oneself leads to downheartedness and inertia, then it is the work of the yetzer hara [evil inclination], whose job it is to use every means to prevent the Jew from carrying out good intentions connected with Torah and mitzvot.
The false and misleading voice of the yetzer hara should be stifled and ignored. Besides, as the Baal HaTanya [lit. "author of Tanya" i.e., Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi] states (Ch. 25), even one single good deed creates an everlasting bond and communion with G-d (ibid., at length). Thus, a feeling of despondency is not only out of place, but is a stumbling block in the worship of G-d, as is more fully explained in the above and subsequent chapters of Tanya.
- With regard to understanding, or lack of understanding, of the tachlis, the important thing required of the Jew is contained in the words of the Torah: "For the thing is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart (and the tachlis is) to do it." Understanding is, generally, the second step. The first step is the practice of the mitzvot. (See enclosed copy of my message to a study group).
My prayerful wish to you, as you conclude your letter, is that the next one coming from you will be more cheerful.
26th of Tamuz, 5718 
I was pleased to receive the news of your forthcoming Bar Mitzva. I send you my prayerful wishes that this great day in your life, which makes you a full-fledged and fully responsible Jew, will bring you inspiration and an increased determination to observe all the mitzvot and to continue to study the Torah with increased diligence and devotion.
Since you are a student of a Lubavitcher Yeshiva, I am sure you realize that to become Bar Mitzva does not mean a graduation or completion, G-d forbid, even of preparations and training. On the contrary, it is the beginning of a full life as a fully qualified Jew, and all your studies and training up to the Bar Mitzva were only a preparation for it.
Obviously, when one undergoes a period of training and preparation for a certain thing, it would be rather foolish and illogical to let all that preparation go down the drain when the time comes and one has become fully qualified. I am therefore certain that you will make full use of your preparation before your Bar Mitzva and will continue your studies of the Torah and the observance of the mitzvot in the fullest degree.
I am sure you know that the portion of the week which will be read on your Bar Mitzva Shabbat contains the important portion of Shema - "Hear O Israel, G-d, our G-d, G-d is One." This portion of Shema, which is also contained in the tefilin, is the declaration of the whole Jewish people and the basis of our faith throughout the generations and accompanies the Jew everywhere, as is stated: "When thou sittest in thine house, and when thy walkest by the way, and when thy liest down and when thou risest up." For the Torah and mitzvot are eternal for all times and all places.
I am sure that if you will fulfill the above you will be happy in every way and your parents will have real nachas [pleasure] from you. Moreover, I trust that your parents will encourage you to their utmost to continue along this way, which is the way of real happiness, not only spiritually but also physically and materially.
Rambam for 11 Sivan, 5758
Positive Mitzva 59: Blowing the Trumpets in the Sanctuary
By this injunction we are commanded to sound trumpets in the Sanctuary when offering any of the Festival sacrifices. It is contained in the words "Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets."
Wednesday, 16 Sivan, is the yahrtzeit of a remarkable woman - Rebbetzin Freida, of blessed memory, daughter of the Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad Chasidut. So profound was her knowledge of Chasidut that her brother, later to become the Mitteler Rebbe, would often ask her to ask their father for explanations of difficult concepts, whereupon he would hide himself in the room and overhear their conversation!
Rebbetzin Freida was never physically robust and was frequently ill; after the Alter Rebbe passed away she became increasingly weak. Several months later, feeling that her time was near, she requested that she be buried next to her father in Haditch.
The Chasidim were in a quandary. True, they all acknowledged Rebbetzin Freida's piety and knew how beloved she had been to the Alter Rebbe. Still and all, her request was highly unconventional.
A few days later Rebbetzin Freida again sent for the Chasidim. When they arrived they found her fully dressed, lying on her bed in the middle of the room. After asking them to stand around her she began to recite: "O G-d, the soul You have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You invested it within me and safeguard it." When she reached the words "And will one day remove it from me," Rebbetzin Freida raised her hands heavenward and cried out, "Father, wait! I am coming!", whereupon her holy soul ascended to its Maker.
It was obvious that any person who merited such a passing surely deserved that her request be fulfilled. Still, a small doubt remained...
On the way to the cemetery the funeral procession reached a crossroads. Haditch was in one direction; Kremenchug in the other. When the horses were allowed free rein they chose Haditch, and Rebbetzin Freida's final wish was carried out.
In the Messianic era, all Jews will arise with the resurrection of the dead, the holy Rebbetzin Freida among them. May it happen immediately.
Then shall they confess their sin which they have committed (Num. 5:7)
Why is the commandment to confess one's sins, the very foundation of the concept of teshuva (repentance), mentioned in connection with stealing? Because all sins contain an element of theft: G-d grants a person life and endows him with strength in order to carry out His will. If he misuses these gifts he is, in essence, stealing from G-d...
So shall you bless the Children of Israel (Num. 6:23)
Before the kohanim recite the priestly blessing they say, "Who has sanctified us through His mitzvot and commanded us to bless His people Israel with love." On the most literal level this means that the kohanim are to bestow their blessing out of a sense of love for their fellow Jew. Yet on a deeper level it expresses the intent that the benediction bring the Jewish people to love one another, rendering them a suitable vessel for G-d's beneficence.
(Ta'amei HaMinhagim b'shem Torat Chaim)
The L-rd make His face shine unto you (Num. 6:25)
G-d's "face," as it were, is symbolic of His innermost will and love; "unto you" implies the Jewish people and the realm of holiness. Although everything in the world is sustained by G-d, things which are not holy receive a lesser vitality that emanates from a more external aspect of the Divine Will. An analogy: When the king throws a banquet for his royal ministers, even the household servants get to enjoy the leftovers. Nonetheless, the servants' enjoyment is secondary; the king's main intent is to please his guests.
Four of the wagons and eight of the oxen he gave to the sons of Merari (Num. 7:8)
These wagons had to carry an enormously heavy load of building materials for the Sanctuary: huge planks, bolts, pillars, tent pegs, etc. Why, then, were there only four wagons? Why wasn't the weight distributed on several more? The answer is that if everything could be loaded onto four wagons, no more were required. Every single object in the world must be used to its full potential, as "G-d has created nothing superfluous in His world."
This story, condensed from Talks and Tales, is a first-hand account by a survivor of Hitler's war on the Jews.
"I was lying in a ravine, by the side of a railroad embankment, in the dead of night. All my bones ached. I had just escaped from the train carrying hundreds of my brethren to the death camp of Auschwitz. The rattling sounds of the train were dying in the distance.
"I had been stunned by the fall, and I don't know how long I had been lying in the ravine. When I regained consciousness and realized that no bones were broken, I thanked G-d for being alive. Raising my head a little I looked around. Hundreds of yards away, along the track, I saw the silhouette of a Nazi guard on duty, clearly outlined between me and the woods. A large field lay between me and the woods. I had to get there before dawn. Already the stars were fading.
"Cautiously I began to creep towards the woods. Every movement was agony. At last I found myself among the trees, and could breathe with relief. The trees would give me shelter. Under a cluster of low fir trees I lay myself down in hiding. With a prayer of gratitude to the Almighty on my lips, I fell asleep.
"I woke up in the advanced hours of the morning. Very cautiously I stole a glimpse around. There was neither sight nor sound of man or beast. I should have preferred the latter, anyway. Suddenly I felt very hungry. For three days I had had no food or water. The pangs of hunger became unbearable. I thought I would die in agony if I did not get some food soon.
"I got out of my hiding place and for a moment I stood, not very steadily, inhaling the fresh morning air. I knew that I was yet far from free. I would be hunted like an animal or die of starvation. The woods which had seemed so friendly, seemed friendly no longer. Fir and pines and nothing else, not even a berry or a blade of grass.
"I started walking. In the distance I saw a farmhouse. Would I find a human being who would take pity on me? I decided to chance it. I knocked softly on the door. When it opened I saw a peasant woman stare at me. Then I felt my blood curdle. For over her shoulder appeared the face of a Nazi in uniform.
"I turned and fled, but it was too late. A loud shout of 'Halt!' sent the chills down my spine. I collapsed like a bundle of straw.
"The Nazi kicked me viciously. 'Get up, Jew!' he yelled. 'Come on, Jew, step lively, march!'
"I was now marching back to the woods, with the Nazi following a few paces behind. As I walked I recited the 'Aleinu' prayer:
It is our duty to praise the L-rd of all things, To ascribe greatness to Him Who formed the world in the beginning Since He has not made us like the nations of other lands, And has not placed us like families of the earth...
"A serene calmness began to descend upon me. I was not afraid to die.
"'Halt!' came the order. 'About face!'
"I turned around. For a moment the Nazi paused. If he expected me to fall on my knees begging for my life, he was going to be disappointed.
"'Dig!' roared the Nazi.
"I was wondering what I was to dig with.
"'Dig!' he roared again.
"I dropped on my knees and began to dig with my fingers. The soft earth yielded freely. At last my grave was ready.
"Then he order me to strip. I took off my boots, and began to take off my clothes. When I reached my tzitzit I stopped.
"'Strip!' roared the Nazi, hoarse with rage.
"'No!' I said defiantly. 'I want to die with this garment on me.
"The Nazi drew his pistol and aimed. I closed my eyes and whispered the 'Shema,' and waited for the shot, but it didn't come. I opened my eyes.
"The Nazi was still aiming. His hand was not very steady. 'What is this, and what are you whispering?' He asked, pointing to my tzizit.
"'These are my sacred witnesses,' I said, 'and they will accompany my soul to the Heavenly Court and bear witness before the Almighty how I met my death. They will demand retribution for my innocent blood, and the blood of my innocent brothers.'
"The Nazi hesitated. His cruel face became visibly worried. He was thinking - something he had not done since he had joined the Nazi youth.
"'Suddenly he roared, 'Scram! To the devil with you! Run before I change my mind!'
"I stood still. My feet seemed glued to the ground. 'Run, idiot,' I was saying to myself, but still I could not move. I just stood there, my eyes wide open, staring at the Nazi.
"Suddenly, he turned and fled..."
The Talmud (Nida 61b) states that the mitzvot will be anulled in future time. This means that the mitzvot in their present form will be of no account relative to the revelations of the future. The degree of Divine energy elicited by the performance of a mitzva today is infinitely inferior to the degree of Divine energy that will be elicited by the performance of a mitzva in the future.
(Hemshech 5672, vol. III)